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Shortly after the possibility that Parliament would triumph over the Crown during the English Civil War a “General Assembly” was convoked. It met at Westminster. At least one Anglican bishop, the Archbishop of Dublin, took his seat. Archbishop Ussher, yes the fellow who divined that the world was 4000 years old, participated in that assembly. He did so as a champion of “limited” or constitutional episcopacy. Ironically he championed the authenticity of the Letters of Ignatius who, in the period after the Apostles, asserted the essential place of the episcopate in the life of the church. Ussher represented the moderate party who sought to advocate a form of episcopacy divorced from State power and limited by the authority of presbyters and laity. He lost! Episcopacy was abolished as was the Prayer Book and what we now term Anglicanism.

However that first General Assembly of clergy and laity defined and limited its own authority by adopting a “Confession”, a statement of doctrine which would serve as the binding standard on all future general assemblies. That confession remains a standard of faith for most Presbyterians in the United States.

Thus in a remarkable sweep of tradition an elected assembly aggregated to itself the authority previously assumed by Archbishops, bishops, and the assembly of clergy (Convocations) and the position of Parliament as the general synod of the English Church.

In many ways that assembly was prophetic. It asserted the right of all Christians to assemble together to govern the affairs of a national church. The growth of synodical government to become usual in Anglican Provinces is the result of this paradigm. However we noted that the Westminster Assembly swiftly limited its authority by the adoption of a Confession which outlined the form of Reformed theology and structure its members espoused. In the following years the compact dissolved as a plethora of sects claimed similar authority to advance their own “take” on the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church.  Denominationalism was born.

There are now claims abroad which claims for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church a similar authority. The theory of limited episcopacy adopted when TEC was founded is now being interpreted as a doctrine which claims for General Convention all authority, or which claims that all authority, episcopal or lay is centered in the general authority of General Convention. But note that General Convention is not described and limited by some clear articulation of Anglican doctrine or by any authority which may adjudicate the theological or even canonical authenticity of the decisions adopted by General Convention.

Ironically the role of Archbishop Ussher at Westminster is now being assumed by the collective House of Bishops which seems ready to bow to the pressure of other clergy and laity in the House of Deputies simply because the majority of bishops are in favor of the present policies which call into question the fidelity of either House to the doctrine and discipline of the church as expressed in Liturgy and Constitutional and Canon Law. If indeed the traditional teaching authority of the episcopate is circumscribed by the prior and invincible authority of a Convention, is not something essential in the form and manner of what we term Anglicanism being radically and triumphantly re-asserted?  Note that recent communications from TEC to the Archbishop of Canterbury have been signed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies suggesting some form of co-equal status and authority. As I predicted in an essay I wrote for Anglicans Online in 2000, TEC is becoming or has become not an episcopal church but a “General Convention Church.”

Our bishops should take serious note of these precedents and demonstrations of power and consider whether they are becoming creatures of an assembly rather than successors of the Apostles. No one advocates absolute rule by bishops. That is not the question. Rather that which is in question is the role of bishops as guardians of the faith and centers of essential unity in concert with presbyters and the laity each with specific roles and functions.

All this came to mind when I read the preface to an article by an erudite lay person in England who seeks to answers the recent letter about TEC’s decisions at General Convention written by the Archbishop of Canterbury and sent to all the bishops in the Anglican Communion. The article countering +Rowan’s letter was prefaced by a paragraph or two seeking to level the ground between archbishop and the writer in question, by pointing out that the archbishop’s thoughts may be questioned!  Of course they may.  But one wonders whether what is being advanced is the sort of theory advanced by some fundamentalists that anyone may rightly interpret Scripture.  The office of Archbishop of Canterbury is due respect. When it is occupied by a person of undisputed learning and holiness one wonders whether the suggestion that his authority as primus inter pares, as a bishop and a scholar is of no greater import than the writings of an ordinary Clerk like me! Of course I am at liberty to “thwack” +Rowan’s points, but I certainly do not do so because I possess either the authority of his office or episcopate or the massive learning he employs.  Is the infallible? I am sure he would chuckle at the assertion. But is it undemocratic to think that I am not his intellectual or spiritual equal?  A teacher once commented to one of my class mates that while he had a right to his own opinion he had no right to assert that his opinion was equal to that of a Cambridge first class honors degree holder who was authorized to teach the class.

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